The Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival IV
Sunday July 8, 2001
The Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival traces its origins back many years to an earlier Portsmouth Jazz Featival which, in 1996, ceased to be viable. A group of musicians and jazz lovers volunteered to start the current festival and keep the yearly jazz celebration going. One of the founding members of this second group was the widely respected New Hampshire pianist Tommy Gallant. After Tommy's death in 1998 it was decided that the festival should be named for him, in honor of his life long service to the community, as a musician, an educator and a citizen. It should be said, for those reading this who are not acquainted with the New Hampshire seacoast, that Tommy Gallant was a superb pianist. Although he chose not to travel widely, great players from far and wide knew he was there and could count on the pleasure of his musical company when traveling to the Portsmouth area. Over the years he played, frequently, with some of the finest of jazz musicians including, Clark Terry, Frank Wess, Al Gray, Marshall Royal, Nick Brignola and Eddie Daniels, just to name a few.
It was a dark and cloudy day at Prescott Park..., but it did not rain, so the audience got to hear four excellent and diverse sets. First up was a trio of guitarist Howard Alden, vibraphonist Ed Saindon and bassist Marshall Wood, in a performance based loosely around the similar group that Rad Norvo lead in the early ‘50. Howard Alden brings more than a little authenticity to this project, since played with Novo in a later group. The tunes were all taken from the Norvo repertoire of standards and blues/rhythm changes based originals. All three of these players have long since established themselves and played well within the level of excellence one would expect of them. They varied the arrangements from song to song with considerable creativity, no small feat when you only have three instruments, and maintained a consistency of variety and surprise.
Some of the highlights of the Alden/Saindon/Wood set were Howard Alden's unaccompanied introductions, where one could fully appreciate his beautifully woody tone and harmonic inventiveness. Marshal Wood's solid, swinging support and graceful solos were so consistent that it is hard to single out a particular solo, he was simply superb throughout. Ed Saindon, whom I had never heard live before, was definitely "in the zone." His solos were consistently hot and his solo performance of "Black Orpheus" was breathtaking.
Next was a stylistically contrasting set by Matt Langley and the band Colors. Langley, who makes his home in Portsmouth, but has toured nationally with the Charlie Kolhase Quintet and Either/Orchestra, is a fine saxophonist with a deep knowledge of jazz styles and practice. Colors, which is a cooperative effort with the Decato brothers, keyboardist Chris and drummer Jamie, has been active for the last five or six years and naturally its members have developed that wonderful empathy that only comes from performing together over a long period of time. They were joined by a "ringer" for this concert, young and up-coming New Hampshire bassist Nate Edgar, who managed to fit right in.
Colors opened their set with a rollicking "Blues for Mr. Hagans," dedicated to trumpeter Tim Hagans. Colors draws a great deal on the dance grooves of the blues, R&B and funk, and their next selection was a two chord vamp held together by a tightly arranged little tune. This gives the players a lot of free space, as it were, to roam in, but something to come home to, and they used both to good advantage. The set was not all modern dance grooves, however. Matt turned a lovely unaccompanied reading of an obscure Broadway tune, "Handful of Stars," that was dedicated to the older members of his family, with whom he had been visiting the night before. And there was another solo feature later on in the set for the bassist Nate Edgar in which he played Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat." Each of the Decato brothers was featured in various selections. Chris Decato, who plays a Fender Rhodes piano through a rotating Leslie speaker cabinet, coaxes many wonderful tone colors out of this instrument, and makes a good case for the recent resurgence of this keyboard. Jamie Decato drove the band with both solid time and plenty of fire throughout the set.
The Seacoast Big Band, who played next, sum up a great deal of what this festival is about. Like so many big bands around the country, it is made up mostly of music educators and very serious amateurs. Above all the Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival is a celebration of the living presence of jazz in this New England seacoast region. One reason why jazz has never died, and likely never will, is that there are people all over this country and beyond who love it dearly and keep it alive with their dedication. True, the record sales statistics would lead one to believe it is so marginal as to be almost non-existent, but the activity that is jazz lies outside of the big time entertainment "industry." As Paul Verrette put it so well in his notes for the program booklet , "The members of the Seacoast Big Band have been unselfish keepers of the flame for well over two decades."
The band's director, UNH professor Dave Seiler, counted off a brisk tempo and the band launched into "St. Thomas," the calypso tune made famous by Sonny Rollins. Good solos all around, especially from trombonist Chris Eberholtzer. Most of the arrangements are from various well known arrangers, like Maria Schneider's take on Tadd Dameron's classic "Lady Bird", but there were also home-grown charts like trumpeter Craig Skefington's swinging treatment of "I'm Old Fashioned," by Jerome Kern. The set ended with trombonist and arranger Phil Wilson, who brought both ‘bone and charts with him, including his haunting tribute to the late composer/arranger/trumpeter Thad Jones, simply titled "Thad." Wilson, who has long had an international reputation, is also a local jazz figure, having grown up with Tommy Gallant in near by Exeter, NH.
The day concluded with the Jim Howe trio, featuring saxophonist Fred Haas and a reprise by Phil Wilson. Bassist Jim Howe, along with either Les Harris, Jr., who was on hand for this concert, or his father Les Harris, Sr., played with Tommy Gallant for many years. After Tommy's death Chris Neville, whose resume includes touring and recording with Benny Carter, became the player of choice to fill the piano chair. This group has been on hand in Portsmouth to accompany a veritable army of visiting jazz dignitaries. It is well known in the jazz community that you can take a gig in Portsmouth as a "single" without fear because this trio is on hand to give you world class support. As a result the Seacoast area regularly gets to hear great musicians who could not afford to come there anywhere near as often with their regular working bands.
Fred Haas started the set off with a brisk "It's You Or No One," on tenor, switched to alto for "Embraceable You," and back to tenor for "Samantha's Blues," dedicated to his daughter. Haas, with his incisive playing and big tone, is always a popular performer. He is definitely one of the stars of the region. Since Phil Wilson was taking shorter solos on this day he played four tunes on his part of the set, "The Shadow Of Your Smile," "Ain't Missbehavin'," What Is This Thing Called Love," and "Over The Rainbow". Wilson, with his burnished, singing tone, demonstrated why he is respected as one of the world's great jazz trombonists. Fred Hass came back out for a final two horn romp on Cole Porter's "I Love You". It is very difficult to play at the high level demonstrated by Fred and Phil without high level support, and that is what the Jim Howe Trio is all about. Their solos and exchanges were also excellent, especially Chris Neville, who had to work with an electronic piano, the action of which clearly did not suit him. Never the less he did not let the instrument get in his way, but consistently played with fire and good humor.
The Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival is presented free to the public, although a modest donation is requested, and would not be possible with out extensive support from the community. Not only institutions and organizations, but businesses and especially individuals. This support is a testimony to the vitality of jazz music in the New Hampshire seacoast region that would possibly surprise people from some of the "Jazz Capitals." It is, however, a tradition in the Portsmouth area.
© Paul Combs, 2001, 2012